A return to winning ways but in a strange atmosphere

After a dreadful start to the season, a comfortable 3-0 home win against a poor Bournemouth side was just what Arsenal needed. No drama. No wailing and gnashing of teeth. No major negatives. It doesn’t mean that all is good in the world again as the real judgement will come when they got to Stamford Bridge next week, but I don’t really want to think about what the reaction would have been like had Arsenal not picked up three points on Saturday.
Overall, the performance was good and Arsenal looked lively from the outset. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gone and Arsene Wenger sticking to the back three, Sead Kolasinac was finally able to play a Premier League game in his proper wing-back position without getting shuffled into a back three role, or with Hector Bellerin playing on the wrong side. Of all the selection questions in the last couple of games, the picking of the wing-backs has really irked me so far this season, so it was a great relief to finally see the correct two picked.
It immediately paid dividends as Kolasinac showed the attacking intent that made him stand out in pre-season with a great run forward and deft chip into the box for Danny Welbeck to head/shoulder into the net. See what happens when you play players in the right position, Arsene?
If the first goal came with a slightly scruffy finish, Arsenal’s other two were very clinically put away. Reinstated to the starting XI after strangely being left out at Anfield, Alex Lacazette showed what a predator he is in front of goal. His overall game looked in good touch with some pressuring from the front and good link-up play, but ultimately he’ll be judged on putting the ball in the net. He reminds of Eduardo, who was a ruthless finisher before his terrible injury.
For Arsenal’s second goal on Saturday, a lovely deep ball by Ozil was worked into a one-two with Welbeck by Lacazette, before the Frenchman took one touch and swept the ball home over Begovic from just outside the area. He emits a confidence in front of goal that meant it seemed inevitable he’d score as soon as he worked the bit of space. Amidst the doom and gloom of the start to the season, there’s a lot to be excited about with Lacazette.
Danny Welbeck isn’t renowned for his finishing as it is the one area of his game that lets him down as an attacking player, but buoyed by the confidence of his earlier scruffy goal, he produced a much more clinical finish at the start of the second half to make the game safe. Fed by Aaron Ramsey down the left, Welbeck struck a perfect side-footed effort into the bottom corner past Begovic.
But while the action on the pitch was good, I found the game slightly odd. With the start to the season that Arsenal have made, it felt like an end-of-season game when the title has already gone and there isn’t much to play for. The atmosphere felt quite flat for a lot of it, almost with fans fearing that these sort of games could be as good as it gets this season. It also highlighted to me how much the players have got to do to get the fans truly back on side and believing in them again after that Anfield performance. There’s a lot of work to be done on all levels of the club, but for the players, that defeat to Liverpool, but more importantly the performance and the effort put in, has burned a lot of bridges with some. Even if they lose next Sunday at Stamford Bridge, the players will have to put in a performance that shows they care and are willing to leave everything out there for Arsenal Football Club.
The other odd thing about the atmosphere was the reception for Alexis Sanchez. On the whole, it was quite good with fans aware of the messy situation Arsenal and Manchester City made at the end of the transfer window, but most still appreciative of the fact he’s a great player and can still be important for us this season.
But there was a minority who decided to boo the Chilean, with one man in the row of front of me getting particularly irate when he came onto the field. Now I understand why some people are upset given that Alexis wanted to leave, but he wasn’t alone in that stance this summer with reports of Hector Bellerin, Mesut Ozil and Shkodran Mustafi, of those still at the club, all looking to move as well. Those players weren’t booed, so why should Alexis be? He was the most high-profile, but ultimately I don’t see why Arsenal fans would want to make him more unhappy at the club by being volatile towards him. The transfer window has gone, we might as well get behind those players left as they need it at the moment. It’s in our interests to as well because getting the best out of Alexis can only be a good thing to help the team make anything of this season.
The chap in front of me made the point that he’d rather see Reiss Nelson out there instead of Alexis because he wants to be at the club and that keeping Alexis is blocking his development. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as excited as anyone about Reiss Nelson’s talent and his potential, and hopefully we’ll see him in the League Cup and the Europa League, but you can’t seriously say that a 17 year-old kid would be better at this stage than the guy who scored 30 goals for the club last season. It was a pretty ugly ending to the transfer window and no-one comes out of the whole Alexis/Lemar situation with much credit, but whether he likes it or not, the Chilean is stuck with us this season, so lets make the most of him while we can.
Next up is Arsenal’s first Europa League/Uefa Cup match since 2000 with the visit of Cologne on Thursday. It will be interesting to see how seriously Arsene Wenger takes the competition as it is one that could be realistically won, but with Chelsea coming up this weekend, I expect and would like to see wholesale changes. Those deemed first choice this season haven’t covered themselves in glory, so there is a real opportunity for a squad player or a youngster to stake a claim in the Europa League and get some regular football. I hope the likes of Per Mertesacker, Calum Chambers, Jack Wilshere, Mohamed Elneny, Alex Iwobi and Reiss Nelson get the opportunity to make that competition their own and play with a freedom that we haven’t seen from Arsenal in recent European seasons. There isn’t the pressure of the Champions League so hopefully that brings out some positive performances.
If nothing else, a fresh team would give the fans something new and something different to be excited about, as the 3-0 win was great on Saturday, but the players have a lot of work to do in the coming weeks to get people to believe in them again.

Advertisements

Yes, it was that good

I thought that waiting a few days might mean I was able to write about the FA Cup final in a more considered manner. In the euphoria of such a victory, it’s easy to work in hyperbole and over-exaggerate something as the greatest or the best. But four days after Arsenal’s epic 2-1 victory over Chelsea, it doesn’t feel like heat-of-the-moment exaggeration to say that it was one of Arsenal’s best ever FA Cup final performances. It really was as good as it seemed on Saturday.
Before the semi-finals, it looked like a long-shot for Arsenal to win the cup knowing they’d have to beat two of Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea. But playing at Wembley and playing in this tournament does something to Arsenal. Whereas they often look nervous and uncomfortable in big European games or big away games in the Premier League, in the FA Cup, Arsenal play like the top dogs. Recent successes in the competition has given the team a belief that they’ll find a way, especially at Wembley. There’s no scrambled minds thinking about European qualification or away goals, it’s just straight knockout. While Arsenal can be incredibly frustrating, on a given day they have the quality to beat anyone.
And that anyone on Saturday was the team chasing the double, the team that are the deserved champions of England and the team that has perfected the in-vogue 3-4-3 formation. It may have only finished 2-1, but the score-line flattered Chelsea. Arsenal were dominant and aggressive and imposed their game on the opposition, making it impossible for the Blues to get into a rhythm during the 90 minutes. The lauded N’golo Kante struggled to get near Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, while Eden Hazard did a Theo Walcott-esque disappearing act.
Everyone who played was superb. Everyone did a job defensively and put a shift in, but equally looked vibrant and lively in attack. All of Arsene Wenger’s big selection decisions paid off with Danny Welbeck up front and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain filling at left-wing back. But the biggest (quite literally) was to pick Per Mertesacker at centre-back. When everyone played so brilliantly, it seems almost unfair to single out one man, but the BFG is deserving of some serious praise.
Even a big Mertesacker fan, like myself, was concerned about him starting the cup final. Forget mentally, it was going to be a huge challenge physically for him to last the whole game having not started a match for 13 months and having played less than 40 minutes in the whole season. He was also starting in a system he’d never appeared in before, alongside a youngster he’d not started a game with before and a left-back doing a job at centre-half. All of this just makes his performance even more remarkable and, for me, makes it one of the greatest performances by a captain in any FA Cup final. His reading of the game was first class, his stifling of Diego Costa went a long way to blunting Chelsea’s attack, and his organisation was vital in a make-shift back-line. I was so chuffed for him as he is someone who has always been an easy target for unfair criticism. He’s a brilliant defender and a brilliant man to have as club captain.
Along with everyone playing well, Arsenal were going to need a bit of luck to go their way to win the game, and it did with the opening goal. Anthony Taylor got the offside decision right, but there was definitely a strong hint of handball in the way Alexis Sanchez blocked Kante’s clearance before finishing. Anthony Taylor then unexpectedly endeared himself to Arsenal fans even more by correctly sending off Victor Moses for two yellow cards, the second coming for a dreadful dive. Having Anthony Taylor as the referee was another reason for a lack of confidence going into the game given some of his previous performances refereeing Arsenal, but overall he was excellent on the biggest day of his career.
Despite playing so well, Arsenal missed some great chances and having been pegged back to 1-1 against ten men, could have been overcome by nerves and fear again. But they roared back into the lead brilliantly with 11 minutes to go. Another one of Arsene Wenger’s decisions paid off as Olivier Giroud came straight onto the field and chipped a perfect cross across the box with his first touch. Aaron Ramsey arrived perfectly to nod the ball into the net and spark bedlum in the red half of Wembley. It was one of those moments that will live forever with every Arsenal fan that was there. And for someone who is often criticised, it’s hard to complain at a player who has now scored two winners in FA Cup finals. Take a bow, Aaron.
The win secured a place in the record books for Arsene Wenger as he became the most successful manager in FA Cup history. Seven FA Cup wins is a ridiculous achievement, and one that I can’t see being beaten for a very long time. It also moved Arsenal ahead of Manchester United as the most successful team in the FA Cup ever with 13 trophies. It might not be the Premier League or the Champions League, but the FA Cup matters. It has given me the best moments of the season as a fan with trips to Preston and Southampton alongside the Wembley games. Being a football fan is also about making memories, and there’s no doubting that Arsenal fans made a damn good one on Saturday, and that was because of the FA Cup.
Of course since the final, there has been confirmation that Arsene Wenger is staying at the club for another two years. After the defeats to Bayern Munich, West Brom and Crystal Palace, Arsenal looked like a broken team. Unless Arsene Wenger ever writes his reveal-all autobiography, which would probably be the greatest football book of all time, we’ll never truly know what happened in that period that derailed the team so dramatically and so damagingly. It looked like he had reached the point of no return, and while I was desperate for him to be able to turn it round, I couldn’t see how that was possible and, for the first time, felt like this summer could be the right time for a parting of ways.
But football changes quickly, and after the magnificence of the performance on Saturday and the upturn in form, albeit too late to get into the Champions League, Arsene Wenger staying seems like a decent option. Certainly in terms of trusting the board to actually have the know-how to pick a successor, Wenger staying is definitely the better option. For fans of other clubs moaning that Arsenal don’t know how lucky they are as the vast majority of clubs would kill to win three FA Cups in four years, they’re right. It does seem ridiculous for fans to moan about the manager in that situation. But for those who follow the club closely and passionately, the club is in a unique and baffling situation. Nowhere else at the top level does the manager possess so much power in the footballing side of the club, and isn’t really held accountable by those supposedly in power above him. For the size of club that Arsenal are and the money the club has coming in, they have under-achieved this season, and haven’t made any genuine progress in the league for years now. It’s a situation that has been allowed to fester and came to a head all too obviously this season.
While the outcome might not be what some were hoping for, at least there is now clarity that Arsene Wenger will be the manager next season and the club can get on with doing business in a hugely important summer. Existing players need contracts sorted, some need to be shipped out, and important additions need to be made. Alongside the announcement of the new contract for the manager have been quotes from the owner and chief executive about the ambition being to win the league. In the set-up of the staff to assist Arsene Wenger, and in the transfer market, Arsenal now have to show that that ambition really is there, and it isn’t just a sound-bite to please supporters. Actions must speak louder than words.
Ultimately, the only way to truly unite the fan base again is by performances on the pitch, as Saturday proved. In a difficult and challenging season, there have been a few times when I’ve wondered exactly why I put myself through supporting Arsenal as it’s not been much fun and there’s been a toxic undercurrent among fans. But why do fans keep doing it? For days like Saturday, when Arsenal provide you with emotions and joy you just can’t find anywhere else.

Top four fight goes to the final day

The chances still seem slim given Liverpool just have to beat a relegated Middlesbrough at home, and Manchester City only need to avoid a heavy defeat to Watford, but Arsenal go into the final day of the season knowing a win could yet sneak them back into the Champions League for another year.
If results don’t go the way of the Gunners on Sunday and they do end up in the Europa League, it’ll be what has gone before during the season that has cost them rather than whatever happens on the final day. But despite the train wreck of a league season, it is to Arsenal’s credit that they have shown signs of recovery from a dreadful run of form to even give themselves a chance of dining again at Europe’s top table. I would have questioned the sanity of someone saying four weeks ago that Arsenal would still have a live chance of getting in the top four on the final day, but in a run of games since the defeat to Spurs when any dropped points would have been curtains for the league season, Arsenal have kept winning. It looked like the team reached rock bottom in the defeat to Crystal Palace and were beyond repair, but with the change of system, Arsene Wenger has very slowly begun the healing process.
The latest victory wasn’t as comprehensive as many hoped for on Tuesday against Sunderland, something that could haunt Arsenal should goal difference become a factor on the final day, but mainly down to the saves from Jordan Pickford in the Sunderland goal, Arsenal could only win 2-0. The Gunnners chalked up 36 shots in the game with the opening of the match feeling slightly like it was shoot-on-site as Arsenal looked a bit impatient to break through.
Chances came and went for Giroud, Ramsey, Bellerin and Holding, as well as other more speculative efforts as Sunderland frustrated Arsenal. The Gunners also looked fatigued after their exertions of the previous week to beat Manchester United and win away at Southampton and Stoke.
Despite any tiredness, Arsenal upped the intensity in the second half with Mesut Ozil really coming to the fore. He’s steadily improved in recent weeks, along with the team, as he’s got used to the new system, but on Tuesday he had a licence to roam about a bit with the visitors sitting deep. With the game needing some inspiration in the second half, Ozil was demanding the ball and driving the team forward. It was no surprise that he picked up the assist for the goal that broke the deadlock.
Ozil found Xhaka from the left and set off on a driving run into the box before the Swiss midfielder found him with a superb pass over the defence. The cushioned first-time ball from Ozil across the box was delightful and Alexis Sanchez was in the right place to tap in one of the easiest goals of his career.
The other key man in that goal, Granit Xhaka, continued his good recent form with another influential display. The quality of the opposition does have to be taken into account, but his passing was excellent all night. Playing as a deeper-lying player, his long range of passing was vital in stretching the packed Sunderland defence and making space for others. Don’t believe what some ‘experts’ say about him being a flop this season. His first season for Arsenal has been a lot about adapting to English football, and now that seems to have happened, I can’t wait to see him have a great campaign next year. He looks fitter and sharper than when he first appeared in the team and has learnt from mistakes that brought him cards earlier in the season. There’s definitely a great player in there. 
The security of Xhaka meant Arsene Wenger was able to introduce Alex Iwobi as an extra attacking creative player in midfield in the second half, and it was a very lively and positive cameo from a youngster who has been out of limelight recently. It definitely helped turn the game as Arsenal were able to flood the box and play with a greater fluidity.
Keen to get more goals, Arsenal didn’t relent after going 1-0 up. The second came as a short corner worked its way across the pitch through Iwobi and onto Shkodran Mustafi, who had popped up on the right wing. He whipped a great cross above the goalkeeper for Giroud, but Pickford managed to parry the Frenchman’s acrobatic volley. Unfortunately for the keeper, Alexis was perfectly positioned to nod in the rebound to bag a brace.
Champions League qualification is still out of Arsenal’s hands, but strange things have happened on the final day before. This has mainly been at Tottneham’s expense, but it’s not completely outside the realms of possibility that there could be a chef change at Liverpool’s team hotel and lasagne is suddenly on the menu on Saturday night. If Arsenal can score early against Everton on Sunday and Liverpool get wind of it, the pressure could just increase and something unexpected could happen. A long inquest will be needed if Arsenal do end up in the Europa League, but at least there’s still a chance of avoiding it going to the last weekend.